by Andrew Garda
Before this Thursday, the Montclair Mounties boys soccer team had only found themselves trailing twice this season and had never given up more than one goal.
Then came the semifinal round of the NJSIAA North East G, Group 4 tournament and No. 4-seeded Kearny on Nov. 19, and a two-goal deficit in first 15 minutes of the first half.
The top-seeded Mounties found them tested in a way they had not been previously this season, but passed that test as they came back to beat Kearny 4-2 and get the chance to host third-seeded Livingston on Saturday at Fortunato Field.
Kickoff is at noon.
Head coach Touré Weaver knew his squad had it in them to come back.
“The talent on this team is unbelievable all through every position and guys, even on the bench,” he said. “And even when we went down those goals, you saw the opportunities coming. So we knew that we could find them. It was just a matter of like settling down and playing.”
That’s exactly what the Mounties did. The Cardinals did their level best to play a very physical game and take Montclair out of their game, get them frustrated and force them to make mistakes.
It worked early, but eventually the talent and will of the Mounties asserted itself.
They began moving the ball around the field with more confidence, finding ways to break through the tough backline of the Kearny defenders and get shots in on goalkeeper Matt Brun.
“Everybody was a little bit unsettled, but I knew that we always had the potential to come back,” senior Julian Shorter said after the win. “I knew we were a better team. As long as we kept playing our game, we would definitely get the win. And that’s what we did. Just stayed calm and kept playing our game.”
Shorter would be the first one to break the ice on a nice shot to make it 2-1.
He said the relief on the field was immediate.
“As soon as I scored the first goal, I was like, we have all the momentum,” he recalled. “Now we keep putting pressure on them and they’re definitely going to crack. We’re going to get more goals and the floodgates are just going to open.”
And open they did as just a short time later, Patrick O’Toole tied the game off a looping pass from Luca Campbell with 15:18 left in the first half.
The momentum shift was obvious, as Montclair contained the game in the Cardinals end for the remainder of the half, continually chipping away at the Kearny defense until Ben Ceccio gave them a 3-2 lead with 4:21 left in the half.
“It was a really proud moment for me,” Ceccio said. “You know, this program means a lot to me and this last year, coming onto the field it was really fun. Now I get to play with all my friends in this team and getting that goal to put us up in semifinals of the state, it couldn’t be any better for me.”
Kearny didn’t back down, however, and coming back out for the second half they tried to re-establish the physical play which had disrupted the Mounties early on. MHS didn’t flinch, though, and gave as good as they got.
The game became very chippy, with several players and the Kearny coach earning yellow cards, but Montclair kept its composure.
At the 20-minute mark, Aiden McGrath headed a ball off the post and past Brun to make it 4-2.
Kearny continued to press, and got several very nice chances to put the ball away but keeper Tyler Krongard made some excellent saves and kept the Mountie lead at two goals.
“TJ hasn’t had to really come up that big, maybe here and there, but today that was a good team and they’re really good at attacking,” Weaver said. “You saw the saves where, not only did he get to [the ball], but he held on to everything, not giving anything up.”
Weaver said it’s hard for a keeper to stay focused when they aren’t tested but the best ones still rise up when they need to.
“For him to almost go through a lot of the season not being that tested, and then today to come up as big as he did?” he said. “We all know he has had it in him. He just hasn’t been able to show it as much, you know, which is okay.”
Now the Mounties get ready for Livingston, who upset the No. 2 seed, West Orange in penalty kicks, with a chance to finish the season with a championship in front of their family and friends at Fortunate Field.
In a unique season, one which was often on the edge of not happening, they are well aware that it’s a special moment.
“It’s huge, you know?” Ceccio said. “In past years we’ve come in [to the tournament] as the fourth seed and going away for the semis and the finals is not easy. Now we get to play here and it’s just huge. It makes a lot of difference playing on our home field. It makes us more comfortable”
They know that even though fans cannot be in the stands, plenty of their friends, family and the community will be along the fence on Essex Avenue to cheer them on.
“This is my first year of playing high school and even in just one season, this field has almost become like my home in a way,” Shorter said. “When we’re playing here in games, it just feels like we’re unbeatable and the energy that we get from the fans, it’s amazing. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Ceccio agrees that the fans support is a big deal for the Mounties.
“The support that we get it’s unmatchable,” Ceccio said. “We have something special here and we can definitely do something on Saturday, especially with the support we have at home.”
“We’re so happy to be playing your last game on [Fortunato],” Shorter said. “It’s going to be special regardless of whether the result.”
The NJSIAA North East G, Group 4 kicks off at noon on Saturday, Nov. 21.